For a change, there is no buzz about Major League Soccer's latest expansion into a soccer-crazy market or about which aging European star is bringing his game to America.
And for the first time in six years, there's no talk about David Beckham.
On the surface, the 2013 MLS season that begins this weekend might seem ho-hum because of its stability.
But this year begins a new chapter, focused on developing the quality of play and continuing to raise the profile of a league that officials hope will become among the planet's elite within 10 years.
"There is no reason that in time Major League Soccer can't be competitive with the world's best," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work and continued investment."
The season begins Saturday with Philadelphia hosting Kansas City. That'll be followed by a Canadian showdown with Vancouver hosting Toronto, Houston vs. DC United, FC Dallas vs. Colorado, Chivas USA vs. Columbus and Seattle vs. Montreal. Sunday, defending champion Los Angeles hosts Chicago, Portland welcomes New York and San Jose faces Real Salt Lake.
New England has a bye the first week of the season, while Seattle, Los Angeles and Houston have byes in Week 2 while participating in the CONCACAF Champions League.
For the first time since 2005, expansion is not a story line. After successful entries into Houston, Toronto, San Jose, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal, the league is standing firm at 19 teams. MLS wants its 20th team to be in New York, although there is an increased effort in Orlando that could eventually lead to the league filling a geographic hole in the Southeast.
"I think they remain a very good potential MLS ownership group and Orlando is an intriguing market," Garber said.
Instead of expansion, the talk entering the season is investment. The league announced Wednesday its intensions to raise the quality of play and infrastructure to make MLS one of the world's top leagues by the ambitious date of 2022. The goal was originally supposed to coincide with a successful World Cup bid. The U.S. won't be hosting that tournament — Qatar will — but MLS is sticking with its plan.
There are other leagues taking notice of the improved quality in the league in recent seasons. Geoff Cameron left MLS for England's Premier League in August, followed by Brek Shea and Roger Espinoza during the January transfer window, and Kei Kamara is on loan to Norwich until early May. Cameron and Shea joined fellow Americans Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Brad Friedel, among those who left MLS for the EPL years earlier.
While the depth of players is arguably at its peak, there are no obvious favorites entering the 2013 season.
Los Angeles starts the year seeking to become the first team to win three straight MLS Cup titles, but its roster will have a different look than the one that hoisted the title last December. Beckham is now at Paris Saint-Germain and it's unclear how long before midfielder Landon Donovan will be ready to actually contribute. Donovan is expected to join the Galaxy at the end of March following a personal sabbatical away from the game, but two months of the season could be lost before he finally plays.
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